I confess that I took a deep, anxious breath before plunging into Marco Tullio Giordana's six-hour epic melodrama "The Best of Youth." The movie, originally conceived for Italian TV, plays out in two three-hour installments that follow two brothers, their friends, lovers and family, from 1966 to 2003. For the first hour, I had my doubts that the journey would be worth the effort. And then it was no effort at all: like a great page-turning novel you want never to end, "The Best of Youth" swept me deep inside the twisting lives of its singular characters.

Matteo (Alessio Boni) and Nicola Carati (Luigi Lo Cascio) are the two brothers. They are students when we first encounter them, sharing their generation's dream of freedom and radical social change. Impulsively, idealistically, they liberate a young girl (Jasmine Trinca) from a mental institution, where she has nearly been destroyed by electroshock therapy, intending to take her back to her father. This adventure does not have the happy ending they intended, and it marks the beginning of their divergent paths. For Nicola, the more gregarious, easygoing brother, it leads him to a career as a quasi-Laingian psychiatrist. For the intense, angry Matteo, terrified by intimacy, freedom proves too threatening: he abandons his studies and joins the police, seeking refuge from his demons in a world of rules and regulations.

Their lives will interact in surprising ways with the epochal events of modern Italian history--the floods that devastated Florence in the '60s, the mafia scandals in Sicily, the street battles between students and police, the rise of the terrorist Red Brigades in the '70s, which lures Nicola's pianist wife, Giulia (Sonia Bergamasco), away from both her art and her husband. There's nothing schematic or generic about this sweeping tale: Giordana and his writers (Sandro Petraglia and Stefano Rulli) respect the mystery, and the humanity, of all its characters. Rarely have tears been so well earned. Smart, generous, as subtle as it is expansive, this is storytelling of a rare order. Six hours may seem like a big investment, but the emotional pay-back is beyond price.